In 1663, Danish physician Thomas Bartholin described a woman who "went up in ashes and smoke," while the straw mattress on which she was lying asleep remained untouched by the blaze. This strange incident, which took place in Paris, is thought to be the first recorded account of the phenomenon we now know – but scarcely understand – as spontaneous human combustion.
Spontaneous human combustion is the name given to those rare instances when a person has gone up in flames and been burnt to a cinder, with no apparent external heat source there to have ignited them.
Most of the some 200 reported cases of spontaneous human combustion (SHC) share some similar characteristics.
First, the corpse is almost completely incinerated while the larger area around it remains undamaged; only the body itself, the floor below it and the ceiling above are affected.
A second common feature of SHC is that, of the human body parts, generally it is the torso that is most completely consumed, with any remains found among the extremities.
A third characteristic is that as well as there being no evident external source for the blaze, there is nothing present that might have served to accelerate the fire.
Finally, the victim is usually alone – and often in their own home – when they meet their fiery end. They are also held to have been alive when the fire started, yet signs of a struggle are often scarce.
There are a number of theories to explain the phenomenon of spontaneous human combustion – paranormal explanations as well as more widely accepted natural explanations involving more or less verifiable phenomena.
Among the more plausible natural explanations is the idea that victims – who tend to be old, infirm or obese – are asleep, otherwise unable to move, or indeed have died from a natural cause such as a heart attack, are then ignited by a heat source – commonly a dropped cigarette.
A hypothesis known as the ‘wick effect’ suggests that some external spark or ember ignites the victim’s clothing enough to split the skin below. The skin in turn releases body fat, which works in a similar way to candle wax, seeping into the clothing – which acts like a wick. The wick effect has been tested effectively using pig tissue, and the human body does contain enough fat to fuel its own combustion.
Other proponents of supposed spontaneous human combustion have their own theories based on more ‘out there’ natural explanations. One of these suggests that particles such as gamma rays might bring about SHC of the victim in an oxygen-free reaction – but how this might work or where the energy comes from is yet to be explained.
Yet another unobserved explanation is that abnormally high levels of alcohol in the blood reach the point it ignites spontaneously – however, the lethal concentrations of alcohol this would require render the theory extremely implausible.
A third idea is that the spark from a buildup of static electricity ignites the clothing of the victim – though it’s highly unlikely that this could start the kinds of deadly infernos that have claimed hundreds of lives.
7. Mary Hardy Reeser (d. 1951)
In 1951, the burnt remains of 67-year-old Mary Reeser, of St. Petersburg, Florida, were found in the chair in which she’d been sitting, with nothing left behind but her shrunken skull, part of her beslippered left foot, and her backbone. While Reeser’s body had been almost totally cremated, there was little damage to the room – certainly not the sort one would expect from a typical house fire.
Local police chief J.R. Reichert sent a box of evidence to the FBI along with a note that read: "We request any information or theories that could explain how a human body could be so destroyed and the fire confined to such a small area and so little damage done to the structure of the building and the furniture in the room not even scorched or damaged by smoke." The FBI in turn subscribed to the wick effect theory, with a cigarette held to have set fire to Reeser’s nightgown.
6. John Irving Bentley (d. 1966)
John Irving Bentley was a 92-year-old Pennsylvania physician who was found dead (by a man who came to read his meter) having burnt to death in his bathroom. The only remaining part of Bentley’s body was his lower right leg, with the foot still wearing a slipper. The body had burned through the bathroom floor such that the cremated remains landed in the basement below. One theorist believes that burning embers from Bentley’s pipe had fallen amongst his clothes and that matches in the pocket may have helped fuel the blaze. What appears to have been a broken water pitcher was found in the bathtub, suggesting that Bentley tried to put out the fire but likely fainted before he could do so.
5. Henry Thomas (d. 1980)
Seventy-three-year-old Henry Thomas was found in his living room in Wales almost completely incinerated – except for his clothed feet, and legs below the knee, and his skull. Half the chair he was sat in was also destroyed and the heat had melted the controls of a television set in the room.
Policeman John E Heymer noted: "The living room was bathed in an orange glow, coming from windows and a lightbulb. This orange light was the result of daylight and electric light being filtered by evaporated human fat which had condensed on their surfaces. The remainder of the house was completely undamaged.” The forensic team claimed the death was the result of the wick effect, suggesting that Thomas had fallen into the fireplace and set himself alight before sitting down again. However, Heymer argued against this, saying the oxygen in the sealed room would not have permitted the wick effect, and pointed to the burnt “fringe” of the victim’s trousers legs – “as though the clothes had been burned through with a laser beam.”
4. George Mott (d. 1986)
Nothing but a shrunken skull and a piece of rib cage were found after George Mott, a 58-year-old firefighter from New York, burnt to a crisp along with the mattress on which he had been lying. Investigators put forward the idea that an electrical arc might have jumped from the wall socket or else that a gas leak may have been to blame. Mott was believed to have been a heavy drinker and smoker and moreover was not wearing the oxygen mask he used at the time of his death, though the oxygen machine was present in his home.
3. Jeannie Saffin (d. 1982)
One of the few cases of death by spontaneous human combustion in which a witness was present involved Jeannie Saffin, a 61-year-old woman with the mental age of a six-year-old. Saffin was sitting with her 82-year-old father in their home in London when, according to the father’s testimony, he caught a glimpse of a flash of light. Upon turning towards his daughter, he saw that she was covered in flames but was motionless and making no attempt to put out the fire herself. He tried to douse the flames, apparently damaging his own hands in the process. Jeannie suffered third-degree burns to the upper part of her body, but while still alive after the incident, she died in hospital a week later later.
2. Michael Faherty (d. 2010)
Michael Faherty, a 76-year-old Irishman, was found burnt to death, with his head near an open fireplace, in his living room in Galway. Damage was limited to the ceiling overhead, the floor beneath him, and the body itself, which was totally incinerated. The police, however, did not believe the open fire was the source of the blaze. The coroner stated: "This fire was thoroughly investigated and I'm left with the conclusion that this fits into the category of spontaneous human combustion, for which there is no adequate explanation." Notwithstanding, others believe some heat source, such as an ember from the fire, must have been responsible.
1. Robert Bailey (d. 1967)
In an eerie case of spontaneous human combustion that took place in London, a bus passenger saw blue flames in the upper window of an apartment and presumed it was a gas jet. The witness called the fire department, and a homeless man, Robert Bailey, was found dead on the smouldering stairs inside the building. A firefighter reported that the blue flames – which they extinguished with a hose – were coming from a slit in Bailey’s abdomen and that he had been alive when he started burning, before dying his agonizing death.